Four theories on the death of 3-D.

The state of the universe.
Sept. 15 2011 7:19 AM

Who Killed 3-D?

A box-office whodunit.

Captain America: The First Avenger publicity still. Click image to expand.
The newest 3-D movies, including Captain America, are making less on the 3-D showings than 2-D

This time last year, there were whispers among film executives and industry-watchers that 3-D cinema had worked its way down a blind alley with its pockets full of cash. That summer, the format seemed like the answer to all of Hollywood's problems: shrinking ticket sales, video piracy, home-theater viewing. The studios had put out a run of record-smashing, premium-priced blockbusters: Avatar, Alice in Wonderland, How to Train Your Dragon, Clash of the Titans, Shrek Forever After, and Toy Story 3—a half-dozen 3-D movies that earned more than $2 billion in domestic sales. Yet by the end of August 2010, the future of cinema was starting to look unsteady on its feet. Box-office returns from the next wave of 3-D films were disappointing. The revival needed reviving.

Daniel Engber Daniel Engber

Daniel Engber is a columnist for Slate

An analysis published in Slate last August showed that the patient might already have flat-lined. The profitability of 3-D cinema had dropped since the start of the vogue several years earlier, and more recent films were barely breaking even on their 3-D screenings. Now we've got another year's worth of data—12 months' more evidence that the medium is in peril. According to a New York Times business story from June, waning enthusiasm for 3-D has brought the vultures circling, with shares of DreamWorks Animation, the studio managed by Jeffrey "2-D films are going to be a thing of the past" Katzenberg, in free-fall. Shares of RealD, one of the big players in stereo projection technology, have also been in a tailspin, losing 70 percent of their value since May.

"Anyone would have realized he was dead, just one look at those staring eyes," says Grace Kelly's character in Dial M For Murder, the Hitchcock thriller that became one of the last mainstream 3-D features to be produced during an earlier cycle of boom and bust. By the time of that film's release in 1954, the first great fad for stereo cinema had perished without much ceremony. By all appearances, its 21st-century descendent has met a similar fate.

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Identifying the victim is easy, though. The trick is to find the culprit. Like Dial M's Inspector Hubbard, it's time to make a careful accounting of the evidence, to follow the trail of box-office numbers to their bloody end. It's been a year since 3-D first began to stagger, and we finally have some clues about what might have caused its demise. Let's line up the suspects and verify their stories against the facts. Who killed 3-D?

First things first: Checkthe body. Is it still warm, or has it locked up in rigor mortis? Last year, our answer was based on a simple calculation: For every movie that's released in both 2-D and 3-D, how does the revenue from the two compare on a per-theater basis? (In other words: Which format brings in more money?) When Avatar opened in 2009, it earned about $15,800 for every theater that showed the film flat, and about $26,800 for every one that showed it in 3-D. It's not unreasonable to suggest that the owner of an old-fashioned theater might have increased her revenue by $11,000—or 70 percent—by upgrading her equipment and showing Avatar in 3-D.

For all the Avatar hype, this wasn't an exceptional figure. Pretty much all of the 3-D films released in 2009 and early 2010 were earning from 50 to100 percent more money from 3-D than 2-D on a per-theater basis. (Some movies, like Monsters vs. Aliens and The Final Destination, more than doubled their income.) The first clear sign of danger came the weekend of June 18, 2010. Toy Story 3 opened with $110.3 million in ticket sales, making it one of the most successful films in history. Yet the Pixar movie's 3-D screenings contributed relatively little to its dazzling profits. Their per-theater revenue was at minus-5 percent compared to 2-D showings—the first time in recent history that 3-D had sunk below the break-even point on a film's first weekend. Six weeks later, Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore opened with $12.3 million in total sales, and a 3-D "bonus" of minus-10 percent. The monster profits from 2009 had all but disappeared by the end of the summer.

The health of the medium has only worsened. The studios have released more than two dozen major 3-D features since Cats & Dogs. A couple of those—Resident Evil: Afterlife and Tron: Legacy—seemed to benefit from 3-D showings, but the rest did not. About three-quarters of the last year's films saw negative returns from 3-D, and many landed far below the breakeven point. The newest Harry Potter and Kung Fu Panda movies, plus Captain America and Green Lantern, saw revenue adjustments of around minus-65 percent. In other words, their screenings at 3-D theaters were making just one-third as much moneyas regular showings.

The updated graph below shows almost every major 3-D release since the beginning of 2009. The ratio of 3-D revenue to 2-D revenue per theater is shown on the Y-axis, and the dotted red line represents the break-even point. The trend that was beginning to take shape last summer has deepened in the last few months. (Data exclude any film that opened at fewer than 1,500 locations, and films with "3-D" in the title, which only a fool would see on a flat screen.)

17_110913_cb_chart1

It might seem premature to suggest that stereo cinema has passed away, given that Steven Spielberg's The Adventures of Tintin will come out this fall, along with a stereoscopic movie from Martin Scorsese and a 3-D stoner comedy with Harold and Kumar. (We've also got the looming juggernauts of Avatar 2 and Avatar 3, tentatively set for 2014 and 2015.) Still, the downward trend in 3-D revenue numbers is unlikely to reverse anytime soon. If the medium isn't dead, it's mortally wounded.

OK, Inspector Hubbard, so whom should we blame?

1. Greedy theater chains.

The first and most obvious culprit would be the theater chains, which responded to the revival's early success by ratcheting up the 3-D premium. In the spring of 2010, the Wall Street Journal reported that AMC, Regal, and other major exhibitors were about to raise their prices by 20 percent or more, in the hopes of inflating the bubble even bigger than it was after Avatar and Alice in Wonderland.

Earlier this year, the consulting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers reviewed the Hollywood numbers and warned that the chains may have pushed costs a bit too high: "Industry players risk killing a golden goose by overselling and, in some cases, overpricing the 3-D experience." According to one poll cited by the firm, more than three-quarters of Americans say 3-D isn't worth an extra $4 per ticket.

There has indeed been a noticeable decline in 3-D ratios following the nationwide price hikes in early 2010. If you look at the 10 3-D movies that were released before the gouging, and compare them to the 10 3-D movies that were released right after, the average revenue bonus for fancy screenings declined from 76 percent to 27 percent.

16_110913_cb_chart2

But that one-time jump in ticket premiums doesn't explain why the format continued its slide over the months that followed. While the cost of going to see a 3-D movie stabilized (or returned to its steady upward creep), the next 10 movies to be released earned an average return of minus-3 percent from their 3-D screenings, and the 10that came after that yielded minus-52 percent. It's also clear that the numbers were spiraling downward long before the theater chains succumbed to their greed. (The graph above uses the same 3-D vs. 2-D data as before, expressed as percentages and averaged across consecutive groups of five movies from 2007 to the present.)

PricewaterhouseCoopers argues that 3-D might be sustained—or brought back to life—if the theater chains could limit the ticket premium to a couple of dollars. But the data suggest that something else might be to blame.

2. Greedy film studios.

If you ask the medium's most dedicated evangelists what's wrong with 3-D, they'll point to the shoddy, post-production upgrades that flooded the market after Avatar. "It was just being applied liked a layer, purely for profit motive," said James Cameron, who rates the quality of 3-D in dimensional fractions, 2.2-D or 2.5-D. According to this theory, high-end, "real" 3-D sells itself, while the crappy, cash-in conversions—the "fake" 3-D—destroys the brand.

Again, there's some supporting evidence. Using information gleaned from RealOrFake3D.com, it's possible to compare box-office numbers from converted and native 3-D films: Since 2010, "real" films have an average ratio of 1.00, meaning they earn about the same amount from 3-D and 2-D on a per-theater basis. The "fake" films from that period had an average ratio of 0.87, which equates to minus-13 percent. It's also the case that fakeness is on the rise—it now accounts for about half of all 3-D releases—which could explain the general worsening of 3-D returns.

The data are hard to interpret, though. It's not clear whether animated films, which make up the plurality of 3-D releases, should count as real or fake. (The conversion process applies only to live-action footage.) Plenty of others on the list of 3-D films are partially animated, and at least a few—like Transformers: Dark of the Moon and Cave of Forgotten Dreams—employ a mix of natural and converted elements. The quality of live-action 3-D footage also varies, of course, so the effects in one film might be real-but-lousy, while those in another are fake-but-pretty-good.  

If the conversion-happy studios are complicit in the death of 3-D, there isn't yet enough evidence to convict them.

3. Shrewd consumers.

What about the audience—could film-goers have murdered 3-D with indifference? Their motive would be easy enough to suss out: The format is little more than a headache-inducing gimmick, goes the argument, that leaves the image murky, distorted and degraded. Or worse, it does nothing at all: Up to 10 percent of the population is anatomically incapable of seeing 3-D effects.

While the early movies in the 3-D revival relied on outrageous stunts—pickaxes flying off the screen and all that—recent films have tended to use the technology for atmosphere, rarely breaking out of the stereo window. Restraint carries its own risks, however. In June, A. O. Scott called this "one of the pitfalls of that format, which is that if the 3-D is unobtrusive enough that you don't really notice it, you may as well foregothe disposable glasses and the surcharge that comes with them." The vice-chairman of Paramount summed up the case when he told the Times that consumers are "tired of sitting in a theater thinking, 'Wait is this movie in 3-D or not?'"

It's a damned-if-you-do problem: 3-D effects are either too blatant or too subtle, a novelty or a trifle. (A related theory holds that stereoscopy works for certain genres—animated children's movies, for example—but adds nothing otherwise.) All of which may have led film-goers to agree with Roger Ebert that there's no value to 3-D whatsoever. At best, it caters to the mall crowd, or the markets overseas that lap up our most embarrassing exports.

So how bad is 3-D on its own terms? Critics are mixed. Slate counted up favorable and unfavorable mentions in 128 reviews published in the New York Times, Entertainment Weekly, and the Hollywood Reporter, covering 43 recent 3-D movies. A bit more than half the reviews made no mention of 3-D at all, or else they mentioned it only in passing and without judgment. About 28 percent came out against the technology, declaring it a needless distraction or worse. The remaining 21 percent lauded the use of 3-D as a worthy add-on, skillfully employed.

Which is to say that the critics are by no means unanimous in their condemnation of the new-fangled format; sometimes they see it as a boon. Nor does the quality of 3-D appear to influence its rate of return. Everyone loved the stereoscopy in Avatar, and consumers flocked to premium-priced screenings. Yet the 3-D effects in the latest installments of Kung Fu Panda, Transformers, and Harry Potter also received high marks—while their 3-D numbers approached historic lows.

Consumers have started to abandon 3-D movies—that much is certain. But their indifference seems not to be on account of the medium itself.

4. Hack filmmakers.

Film directors and screenwriters are the final suspects in the death of 3-D. A run of bad movies—poorly-scripted, badly-acted, crudely done—could have damaged the brand beyond repair. (A stinker is a stinker in any dimension. No one pays a surcharge for a lipsticked pig.) If this year's crop of 3-D movies were of lower quality than those from last year or the year before, consumers might have learned a lesson: Don't bother.

Data from RottenTomatoes.com suggest that 3-D movies are indeed getting worse. "Tomatometer" scores for recent 3-D movies have been all over the place, from Toy Story 3 and Harry Potter (which rated at 100 percent among leading critics) to The Final Destination and Shark Night 3-D (which scored a 0from same). Amid all the noise, though, the numbers show a clear, downward tilt. More than two dozen major 3-D films were released between 2004 and the end of last summer, earning an average Tomatometer score of 57 percent. Among the 32 movies that have been released since, those ratings have dropped to an average of 41 percent.

The bad-movie theory jibes with research on what might have killed off the first wave of 3-D movies in the 1950s. In an essay for Film History titled "The Tragedyof 3-D Cinema,"(subscription required)historian Rick Mitchell goes through the possible causes of death from 60 years ago. The two most popular explanations, he says, are that consumers grew frustrated with the bulky glasses—especially the early models that were made of cheap cardboard—and that out-of-sync projections gave audience-members headaches and nausea.

Mitchell's not so sure. From 1952 to 1954, the major studios experimented with 3-D musicals, 3-D comedies, 3-D dramas, 3-D science fiction, and 3-D westerns, he says. They tried every different approach they could think of, but their films had one thing in common: They sucked. The fad got its start around Thanksgiving of 1952 with the audience-pleasing adventure film Bwana Devil—a sort of Avatar of its day—and a gold rush soon followed. Movies that had been planned for 2-D, or even half-made, were quickly updated and re-shot on the cheap. While some high-end films did get produced in stereo, they arrived late to a party that was already crowded with losers like Robot Monster and Cat-Women of the Moon.

The same may have happened in the last few years. For every brilliant 3-D feature like Toy Story 3 or Cave of Forgotten Dreams, we've seen half a dozen dopey kids' movies, a handful of violent horror pics, and a few superhero retreads. The same could be said of flat movies, of course, but that's exactly the point: If 3-D films are just as bad as everything else that comes out of Hollywood, then they aren't worth a ticket premium at any price.

What happened to 3-D? It may have died from a case of acute septicemia—too much crap in the system.

Correction, Sept. 15, 2011: This article originally called the subtitle of the Transformers movie Dark Side of the Moon.

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